Will in the World Paperback – Aug 30 2005
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There's no shortage of good Shakespearean biographies. But Stephen Greenblatt, brilliant scholar and author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, reminds us that the "surviving traces" are "abundant but thin" as to known facts. He acknowledges the paradox of the many biographies spun out of conjecture but then produces a book so persuasive and breathtakingly enjoyable that one wonders what he could have done if the usual stuff of biographical inquiry--memoirs, interviews, manuscripts, and drafts--had been at his disposal. Greenblatt uses the "verbal traces" in Shakespeare's work to take us "back into the life he lived and into the world to which he was so open." Whenever possible, he also ushers us from the extraordinary life into the luminous work. The result is a marvelous blend of scholarship, insight, observation, and, yes, conjecture--but conjecture always based on the most convincing and inspired reasoning and evidence. Particularly compelling are Greenblatt's discussions of the playwright's relationship with the university wit Robert Greene (discussed as a chief source for the character of Falstaff) and of Hamlet in relation to the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet, his aging father, and the "world of damaged rituals" that England's Catholics were forced to endure.Will in the World is not just the life story of the world's most revered writer. It is the story, too, of 16th- and 17th-century England writ large, the story of religious upheaval and political intrigue, of country festivals and brutal public executions, of the court and the theater, of Stratford and London, of martyrdom and recusancy, of witchcraft and magic, of love and death: in short, of the private but engaged William Shakespeare in his remarkable world. Throughout the book, Greenblatt's style is breezy and familiar. He often refers to the poet simply as Will. Yet for all his alacrity of style and the book's accessibility, Will in the World is profoundly erudite, an enormous contribution to the world of Shakespearean letters. --Silvana Tropea
Interview with Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt shares his thoughts about what make Shakespeare Shakespeare and why the Bard continues to fascinate us endlessly.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
This much-awaited new biography of the elusive Bard is brilliant in conception, often superb in execution, but sometimes—perhaps inevitably—disappointing in its degree of speculativeness. Bardolators may take this last for granted, but curious lay readers seeking a fully cohesive and convincing life may at times feel the accumulation of "may haves," "might haves" and "could haves" make it difficult to suspend disbelief. Greenblatt's espousing, for instance, of the theory that Shakespeare's "lost" years before arriving in London were spent in Lancashire leads to suppositions that he might have met the Catholic subversive Edmund Campion, and how that might have affected him—and it all rests on one factoid: the bequeathing by a nobleman of some player's items to a William Shakeshafte, who may, plausibly, have been the young Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Norton Shakespeare general editor and New Historicist Greenblatt succeed impressively in locating the man in both his greatest works and the turbulent world in which he lived. With a blend of biography, literary interpretation and history, Greenblatt persuasively analyzes William's father's rise and fall as a public figure in Stratford, which pulled him in both Protestant and Catholic directions and made his eldest son "a master of double consciousness." In a virtuoso display of historical and literary criticism, Greenblatt contrasts Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, Elizabeth's unfortunate Sephardic physician—who was executed for conspiracy—and Shakespeare's ambiguous villain Shylock. This wonderful study, built on a lifetime's scholarship and a profound ability to perceive the life within the texts, creates as vivid and full portrait of Shakespeare as we are likely ever to have. 16 pages color illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Shakespeare's own life and thought, but they make for fascinating thinking. Greenblatt presents his theories as to Shakespeare's religion, relationships with his wife, other playwrights and several individuals known or suspected to have crossed his paths. From time to time the reader must remind himself that much of this book may or may not be true, but then set aside his admonitions and go on enjoying it!
This book is a great read for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or the daily and cultural life of Elizabethan England.
"intriguing possibility", "may have had a place", "if this were the company", "if any of these companies", "might not have seemed", "if he cared to reflect", "might have been hoping", "if Shakespeare felt", "Assuming that Shakespeare", "If in June 1587" - and on and on and on. Terribly disappointing! I am tempted to mark all of these "ifs" and their like with a yellow highlighter - I might need more than one.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
As the world's preeminent Shakespeare scholar, Greenblatt has managed to assemble all these sources and, with a healthy dose of conjecture, arrive at something resembling a biography of the world's greatest dramatist. More than that, though, this work is a biography of the age in which Shakespeare lived and wrote---Elizabethan and Jacobian London---and how the major events of this time affected Shakespeare's plays. For example, the writing of King Lear may have been encouraged by a trial in 1603 in which two sisters tried to have their father declared insane so they could take control of his wealth and estate, while the youngest daughter (named Cordell) tried to stop them---a story uncannily similar to what is considered to be the Bard's greatest tragedy.
What impressed me the most about this biography is how ORDINARY Shakespeare seemingly was. He didn't seem pretentious or snobbish, as some people envision him. He was born to a humble family and lived frugally, despite dying a rather wealthy man.
Although Greenblatt's writing is clear and accessible, he makes the assumption that you have already read Shakespeare's plays, or at least are VERY familiar with them. I have read about two thirds of them and felt a little behind when he discussed plays I hadn't read, so if you haven't read more than, say, ten of his plays, the major ones, you need to crack open the Norton Shakespeare (of which Greenblatt is the editor-in-chief) before you approach Will in the World.
Although Greenblatt bases a lot of his observations and conclusions on deduction and supposition, he makes a lot of intelligent and accurate observations about the world that shaped William Shakespeare. He also, in turn, speculates (sometimes hitting his target and sometimes not)how Shakespeare used the world that formed him to, in turn, form his great works. Are all the conclusions perfect and ironclad? Greenblatt also points to popular works in latin that Will loved so much that he incorporated some basic plot elements into his plays as well (not unlike the Greek playwrites of their era).
Biographers, like historians, draw conclusions from evidence but those conclusions are informed by the bias of their time. That's also true of Greenblatt's work. Still, he makes some remarkable observations and his insights into Will's world will leave you thinking about the plays and sonnets in a whole new way. That's the value of a cultural and historical biography like this. While all the details of Shakespeare's life may be sketchy luckily for us his great plays (even though they've been through many hands and editors over the years) are not. They continue to resonate with great observations about human nature. Greenblatt's book will reshape some of your thinking about the man behind "The Tempest" and "Hamlet" and other times you'll find you completely disagree with him. That's the art of a great biography to create an atmosphere where discussion fuels the fire of interpretation.
What makes this book a cut above any "biographies" is the fact that Greenblatt is more intent on raising questions than passing any of his well informed suppositions off as fact. And interesting questions they are. For instance, why is Shakespeare's wife virtually left out of his last will & testament? Bequeathing her only a "2nd best bed" after 30+ years of marriage & nothing else? What Greenblatt does here is take what little historical records we have, coupled with the politics of the age & tie them into Shakespeare's work. What emerges is an ever so faint pencil sketch of a shrewd, practically minded opportunist who despite his phenomenal success, sought to call as little attention to his personal affairs as possible. In other words, a deliberate cipher. Someone who took in the the sundry world around him & put it all on display in the conveniently ironic guise of Fiction. But someone who seems to have consciously left little or no record of himself beyond his work. So what little we know may actually reveal more than we think. Greenblatt reminds us what a dangerous time Shakespeare was living in. One had to be extremely cautious lest the celebrity of one's words wind up on the end of a pike on London Bridge. Thoughout it all, Greenblatt wisely never leaves the realm of speculation but does a masterful job of aligning current events alongside Shakespeare's words. The chapter, "Laughing At The Scaffold" is an excellent example. The Merchant Of Venice is not only one of Shakespeare's most difficult comedies but one of his most easily misunderstood. I have to say I walked away with a clearer mind on it. It also served as a reminder of how Shakespeare could take a villainous cliche & infuse it with an empathy that not only reveals prejudice for what it is, but human frailty as well.
So how did this grammer schooled, glove-maker's son become the most esteemed playwright of his age? How did he out master such cut-thoat contemporaries as Marlowe & the rest of the University wits? Look to the chapter called, "Shakescene" The fact that they all died within a 6 month period might have something to do with it. Another factor may be that unlike his fellow playwrights at the time, Shakespeare the only one who was actually an actor.
Another key aspect of this book is what Greenblatt calls "deliberate opacity". Why did he take the trouble to deliberately cloud the motivations of a character like Iago, when this same character in Shakespeare's source material plainly states, "because I love Desdemona"? Perhaps, therein in lies the great gift of Shakespeare as a writer. To know that human nature is never black & white, nor as simple as Good vs. Evil. Perhaps Shakespeare knew that by leaving so much to question, it gave liscence to the imagination of actor & audience member alike. Revealing without ever having to explain. Leaving room for interpretation. By highlighting this particular literary device in Hamlet, Lear & beyond, Greenblatt succeeds on shedding a little light on the man behind the Legend. I walked away with the impression of of a man who was not only able to stand outside of society, but profit from it. Someone with a kind & gracious heart but may have loathed his wife. Someone who was low key enough to observe but also someone who could also get fantastically carried away. In short, like many of his characters, a study in contradiction. A useful read for actor, director & scholar alike.
The problem for any biographer of Shakespeare is, of course, the minimal records left behind. Apart from some information left in church and financial records, there is almost nothing of certainty known about Shakespeare. A Shakespearean biographer, then, is forced to make a certain number of guesses and speculations if he is going to come up with any kind of complete story for a reader. Historically, these speculations have ranged from the mundane to the outrageous but they always must rely on the reader's trust of the author's scholarship and how it relates to our own understanding of Shakespeare. I find Mr. Greenblatt to be a very believable biographer.
The main reason I find Mr. Greenblatt's work to be so compelling is the correlations he finds between well-recorded historical events, what is known of Shakespeare and, ultimately, how this finds its way into Shakespeare's work. For example, in the first chapter Greenblatt describes a visit Queen Elizabeth made to Kenilworth where Leicester puts on a grand display for her. Now, was Shakespeare present at these festivities, perhaps even as a young country player? There is no way to know for sure but Greenblatt quotes Robert Langham's letter describing the event and takes us to lines from Midsummer Nights Dream. Shakespeare's recreation of the event is striking. Perhaps he was there.
The other reason I like Greenblatt's work on Shakespeare is that he makes him human. Unlike Harold Bloom, for example (whose work I also greatly admire), who has a distracting tendency to deify Shakespeare, Mr. Greenblatt keeps Shakespeare deeply rooted in the real world. No less a genius for that, Greenblatt's Shakespeare is a man whose work was influenced by his life and experiences and not pulled wholesale from the Muse.
Again and again Greenblatt impresses with his extensive knowledge of history and Shakespeare's work. In doing so, he takes us through Shakespeare's life and time from beginning to end. In the end, he leaves us with a picture of a man and his times--if not a sharp as a photograph then at least as beautiful as an impressionist painting.