Literary and Critical Theory Jonathan Goldberg
Marcie Frank
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0090


Astonishingly prolific, literary theorist Jonathan Goldberg has published fourteen books, and edited or coedited five more. Goldberg took his PhD in 1968 from Columbia University with a dissertation on John Donne’s Devotions, supervised by Edward Tayler. Widely recognized as a meticulous scholar and a writer of dazzling and playful prose, Goldberg has published on all the major authors of the English Renaissance. His early work provided models of how to use the most significant paradigms of post-structuralist literary theory in the study of Renaissance literature. He helped to inaugurate queer Renaissance studies in the 1990s with Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (1992) and Queering the Renaissance (1994). Along with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Moon, and Judith Butler, Goldberg played a vital role in disseminating queer theory as a scholar, a coeditor of Series Q at Duke University Press, and as a teacher. Goldberg’s thinking has always been centripetal and transversal. He has worked across numerous study areas, including Renaissance and contemporary, English and American, homo and hetero, gay and queer, men and women, and gay and lesbian. He traverses both geography and temporality, analyzing the discourses of sodomy in the Old and New Worlds, and bringing Shakespeare’s Tempest together with its reception in 20th-century Caribbean writing. He has written about Renaissance and 20th-century women writers alongside their male counterparts as well as on their own. He has worked across media, analyzing the paintings of Tintoretto, the opera of Beethoven, and the films of Hitchcock, Fassbinder, and Todd Haynes. He has upheld the same rigorous standards of scholarship in everything he has published. Goldberg has served the profession of literary studies beyond the boundaries of the early modern period, in no small part by calling them into question. In its coherence, his oeuvre marks out the territory upon which literary interpretation stakes its claims to intellectual value beyond period specialization and for the rest of the humanities. Now Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor Emeritus at Emory University, previously Goldberg was Sir William Osler Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University (1986–2006), where he also served as senior editor at ELH (2002–2006). He also taught at Duke University (1995–1998), Brown University (1985–1986), and Temple University (1968–1985). In addition to his own scholarship, Goldberg edited a posthumous collection of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s writing, The Weather in Proust (2011), and coedited a collection of essays, This Distracted Globe: Worldmaking in Early Modern Literature (2016), and has edited Milton (1991).

Post-structuralist Theory Meets the Renaissance

Goldberg worked out a key intellectual problem in the uptake of post-structuralism for the study of the literary texts of the past: how to use contemporary theory in reading early modern texts. For many, the solution was to bolster the status of history as a horizon of interpretation. But Goldberg recognized that the value of post-structuralism lay in its critique of authoritative structures and in its subordination of truth-discourses, including history, to the free play of language. He thus refused to grant history authority over literature. Furthermore, he demonstrated that post-structuralist approaches to literature do not evade history. On the contrary, working between Renaissance texts and postmodern theory disclosed both the inescapable pressures of historical difference and the impossibility of any transparent access to the past. His work persistently registers the meaning of historical difference and interrogates its force to determine the shape of interpretation, or the conditions of life, in the present. This insight has organized his critical practice and is crucial to the conjunction he forged between queer theory and Renaissance studies.

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