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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Anniversary Edition) Kindle Edition
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The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist, reissued with a new afterword for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
A young man from a small provincial town moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time. How is an achievement of this magnitude to be explained? Stephen Greenblatt brings us down to earth to see, hear, and feel how an acutely sensitive and talented boy, surrounded by the rich tapestry of Elizabethan life, could have become the world’s greatest playwright.
Interview with Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt shares his thoughts about what make Shakespeare Shakespeare and why the Bard continues to fascinate us endlessly.
- ASIN : B003KVKQRS
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company; Anniversary edition (May 3, 2010)
- Publication date : May 3, 2010
- Language : English
- File size : 3114 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 575 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #72,284 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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Ugh. After more than a few of Greenblatt's "insightful facts" I had to stop reading. Tedious and frustrating.
It's no better or worse than a standard academic performance, once you clear away all the "Shakespeare might have" and "Isn't it likely."
But Will in the World does something quite remarkable. Author Greenblatt paints an in-depth picture of the world where Shakespeare lived and worked. In doing so he shows us how that world could (and probably did) influence the man and author, both in his work and in his life. Along the way we learn much about the plays and the sonnets.
Here and there I was more than a little skeptical of Greenblatt’s conclusions, although he grounds his ideas firmly in the realities of the times.
I highly recommend this as great introduction to Shakespeare and his work, and also as a good beginning work on life in the Elizabethan era.
Top reviews from other countries
Greenblatt provides is an immense bibliography, and I cannot tell how original this work is. Many of the facts in the book will be well-known to Shakespeare enthusiasts. But I can say that Greenblatt’s arguments and analyses are stimulating, though, in my opinion, they rest far too much on “may be”s. At any rate, we learn a lot about the political and social background of Elizabethan England.
In the first chapter, in the absence of enough hard information about his childhood and adolescence, there is much about the morality and mystery plays that “he would have” or “must have” seen during that period of his life, interesting though Greenblatt’s description of such occasions is. He “may have seen” or “may have heard of” the lavish entertainment the Earl of Leicester laid on for Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth, not far from Stratford, in 1575 when Shakespeare was eleven; but the link Greenblatt makes between that entertainment and the analysis of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, twenty years later, is quite superb.
The second chapter deals with Shakespeare’s “lost years” after he left school at the age of 14 or 15. During this time his father, John, who had become bailiff (mayor) of Stratford in 1568, sank into penury, partly due, “possibly”, to alcoholism – and Greenblatt links this to references to alcohol (especially in a father-figure like Falstaff) in his plays. (Later in the book, Greenblatt shows convincingly the extent to which Falstaff was modelled on Robert Greene, that larger-than- life, gross, sleazy and low-living poet who had looked down on Shakespeare when he first won success as a playwright, and who had left that scathing description of Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” beautified with the feathers of the circle of poets known as the university wits. That whole passage on Falstaff is quite brilliant.)
There is more speculation about those “lost years”. As bailiff (mayor) of Stratford, John Shakespeare had given orders, following government policy, to destroy Catholic images in the local churches; but in the 18th century a “spiritual testament” was discovered hidden in the rafters of his house, in which affirmed his belief in Catholicism. Was his son aware of this? Did William also have a secret connection with Catholicism? There is a story that during the “lost years” he was tutor in a Lancashire Catholic family which also was patron to a group of actors – was this how William came to become an actor himself? Greenblatt tells us at length of Shakespeare’ possible stay in Lancashire and of his “possible” meeting there with the charismatic Jesuit Edmund Campion – only to conclude that there is no evidence in his plays of any such influence.
Shakespeare hastily married the already pregnant Anne Hathaway in 1582, and there are reflections in his plays both of impatient courtships and of loveless marriages. Greenblatt brings arguments to show that the latter may was true of this one: Shakespeare left Anne behind in Stratford when he moved to London; no love letters to her have ever been found, nor does he portray trusting and happy marriages in his plays. The only exceptions of genuine love – and grim they are – are those between Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet and between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
More speculations follow on why Shakespeare left for London in the mid-1580s, probably already part of a group of travelling actors he had joined in the provinces. Greenblatt dismisses the story (but only after telling it at length) that he had got into trouble for poaching deer from the estate of the local Sir Thomas Lucy. Lucy was also a ruthless persecutor of Catholic plotters, and had been instrumental in the execution of a relative of Shakespeare’s mother. Perhaps the Shakespeare family might be within his sight, and perhaps that is why William left Stratford for London.. When he arrived in that huge city, what “must have” struck him most was the terrifying and lawless mob, which figures in so many of his plays – in London itself in 2 Henry VI (Jack Cade’s rebellion), but also in Rome (Julius Caesar) and in other cities.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are both the most personal and intimate verses he ever wrote and also deliberately evasive in yielding the identity of the persons to whom they refer. Greenblatt guides us through them in what I found the most difficult chapter of the book.
On what experience might Shakespeare have drawn in his portrait of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, first performed in 1605? One would have been the popularity of the Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, first performed in 1592, which portrays Barabas as one-dimensionally malevolent Jew. But Shylock is not one-dimensional: for all the comedy of his distress at losing his daughter and his ducats, Shakespeare manages to endow Shylock with feelings that should evoke from the audience some of the compassion he himself must have felt for the character.
Greenblatt’s discussion of Hamlet – a turning point in Shakespeare’s plays - is full of interesting ideas. I would single out Shakespeare’s continuing belief in Purgatory from which the ghost of old Hamlet appears to his son – this although the Protestants had dismissed all ideas of purgatory or ghosts as Catholic superstitions. We are reminded of the “spiritual testament” (see above) in which Shakespeare’s father John besought his family to help shorten his time in Purgatory. Both John, who was now seriously ill, and William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, who had had just died would need such help; and John “may well have urged” William to pay for masses for the child; if so, Greenblatt has no idea of William’s response.
There are illuminating comments on Othello and King Lear, but, apart from saying that earlier versions of these plays by other authors were transformed by Shakespeare’s genius, there is no indication of what personal experiences might have contributed to the se plays. Elements of Macbeth (1606), however, seem to be transformed from a pageant staged for Janes I on his visit to Oxford in 1605, which Shakespeare “must have seen or heard about”. In this pageant James I had been shown as descended from Banquo, and Shakespeare also plays on James’ published belief in witchcraft.
Finally, in the figure of the magician Prospero in The Tempest, who gives up “his “potent art”, we get something like a self-portrait of Shakespeare on the brink of retirement. Greenblatt has a fine analysis of the meaning of Prospero/Shakespeare’s renunciation. It is an irony that “the great globe itself” – the Globe Theatre – was “dissolved” – burnt to the ground - in 1613, soon after Shakespeare had returned to Stratford. The “insubstantial pageant” had faded.
This biography is particularly valuable for the light it sheds on the 'university wits' that Shakespeare would have encountered in London at the end of the 1580s, and for the possible influence upon his work that such a dangerous, talented, élitist and arrogant coterie may have had. Chief amongst these writers were Nashe, Peele, Watson, Marlowe and, above all, Robert Greene. Ever sensitive to slights Shakespeare, as a non-university man and a 'base' actor, may well have felt excluded from such company. In any case, Greenblatt speculates that Greene's slighting reference to Shakespeare (as an 'upstart crow beautified with our feathers') may have been the result of a death-bed request for money from the Stratford man. Such a request, he conjectures, was declined, hence the barbed comment in his posthumously published pamphlet. More interestingly still, Greenblatt than goes on to suggest that Shakespeare's ultimate revenge on Greene was not so much Polonius' jibe in Hamlet ('beautified is a vile phrase') as the character creation of Falstaff which, based primarily on the larger-than-life Greene himself, helped cement Shakespeare's reputation as the pre-eminent playwright of his day, eclipsing all of the university wits - most of whom had met violent or squalidly impovershed ends by 1595 anyway.
Greenblatt extends Jonathan Bate's idea (outlined in The Genius of Shakespeare, 1998) that Shakespeare deliberately diluted the motivation of characters he took from his sources in order to make his characters more enigmatic and kaleidoscopic. This 'excision of motive' and the creation of the 'dark hole' within the core of protagonists like Othello and Hamlet and within the action of King Lear, he thinks, led to the emergence of a new kind of character and a new kind of theatre. The great tragedies expressed Shakespeare's understanding of what should be said and what should be left unsaid. Shakespeare's preference was for opacity and untidiness, not neatness or resolution.
More objective biographies - like those of Park Honan and Samuel Schoenbaum - are worthy enough, but this one convincingly puts flesh on those all too bare bones in the crypt at Holy Trinity.
In some cases this works, in others it doesn't. For me the most exciting chapters dealt with Shakespeare's being involved in the pellmell world of Elizabethan playwriting. When Shakespeare arrived in London to begin his career as a writer, he found himself caught up in a revolution in stage-craft, led by a group of Oxford wits, foremost among them being Marlowe, the inventor of the "mighty line". Greenblatt speculates on how Shakespeare, not university educated, would have fit in with this crowd first as an interesting newcomer, then as something of an upstart whose talent offended those (like Robert Greene) who were so obviously inferior to him.
A chapter that didn't work for me, on the other hand, was the one on Shakespeare's marriage. Greenblatt concludes, from evidence in the plays, that Shakespeare's marriage was an unhappy one. The trouble is, to make his point, Greenblatt has to ignore any alternative interpretations, and so although he admits he is speculating, there is no real feel that he is covering all the options. For instance, Greenblatt damns Shakespeare's infamous final will (in which he leaves his wife his second-best bed), without considering the alternative interpretation that this was a common occurrence for the time, the second-best bed being the one they had shared throughout their married life, as the best one was left for guests.
This is certainly not an exhaustive survey of Shakespeare's life. It stands back and considers Shakespeare the man, focusing only on those details which throw light on certain aspects of his character. This makes it a good read to add to other readings about Shakespeare, but certainly not "the best one-volume life of Shakespeare yet", as quoted on the cover.
Greenblatt is a major figure in late 20th century criticism, with his 'Renaissance Self-Fashioning' being a foundation text of the much vaunted (and to my mind highly necessary) New Historicist perspective.
It's good to see that the chapter of this book that focuses on Hamlet draws deeply on Greenblatt's book 'Hamlet in Purgatory' which shows the depth of Greenblatt's perception of the 16th century mind.
This is a very refreshingly unsentimental biography of Shakespeare. Sound textual evidence and common sense readings illuminate the probable reality of the greatest writer Western civilization has ever produced: a lovless marriage, a cheery father seeking refuge in drink as his business collapsed; a homoerotic relationship with a young arisotcrat; a sound businessman with an eye to his retirement; a retired writer seeking refuge in the complexities and disappointments of his daughter's marriage.
I do have a real love for Michael Wood's command of detail and his boundless enthusiasm - (Grenblatt's spare but superb bibliography gives Wood a distinct nod) but this is the work of a critic at the pinnacle of his skill, and is a masterly act of synthesis. Given to a receptive reader, this book could trigger a lifetime enthusiasm for the 'real' Shakespeare.