Monday, July 21, 2014

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Stephen Greenblatt's superb biography / history of Shakespeare and his times paints a portrait of the poet as an ordinary Elizabethan Englishman and extraordinary artist. This is a dazzling work of literary appreciation and historical detective work not to be missed.

Writing a biography of Shakespeare is pretty much an impossibility. So little is known of his life, even less of his personality. The most that the biographer can do is speculate, drawing on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for clues. The concrete details that we have are not particularly inspiring, painting the poet as an almost pedestrian character who was sharp in his business dealings. We know that Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, fell on hard times when William was a young boy, causing much humiliation for the family. Will left home, worked hard in the theatrical business - writing plays, acting, investing in and running theatres - and made himself a wealthy man.

Not one to fritter away his wealth, he made many strategic property purchases in his hometown of Stratford. It was also important to Shakespeare that the reputation of the family name be restored. In the late 1560s John Shakespeare had applied for a family coat of arms, a costly procedure, but one that would have raised the family to the status of gentlefolk. John Shakespeare’s financial downfall meant these plans had to be shelved. In 1596, William renewed the application and got the family the coat of arms. (John Shakespeare was still alive at this time, and hence would have enjoyed the restoration of the family name.)

Perhaps the most depressing part of the Shakespeare story is the fact that he disinherited his wife, Anne. In his will she gets next to nothing. The marriage seems to have been loveless.

In Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to Will in the World, he advises that the best way forward, seeing there is so little on the historical record, is for the reader to imagine Shakespeare. To do this Greenblatt paints as a rich background the Elizabethan world that Shakespeare moved in. This is a world of murderous politics, religious power, disease, early death, London mobs and a very coarse popular culture. Bear baitings and gruesome public executions were the popular entertainments of the day. Failure to attend protestant religious services could see you fined; getting caught at secret Catholic services could get you executed for treason. 

All of this historical detail is coupled with Greenblatt's superbly close reading of Shakespeare’s plays. The effect is to very much feel what it would have been like to walk in Shakespeare’s shoes, to see what he would have seen on his daily travels and consider what would have troubled him.

This is a dazzling biography, history and literary appreciation. Stephen Greenblatt mixes his skills as a Shakespearean scholar with his keen interest in Elizabethan history, throwing in a good dose of psychology and literary detective work into the mix.

The portrait we get of Shakespeare is of a very private man, someone who worked hard but kept to himself. Shakespeare would have felt very keenly all the political and religious turmoil around him, but skilfully kept himself out of trouble and controversy. He was perhaps in many ways a very ordinary man, but an extraordinary artist. He wrote plays that he knew would appeal to the London mob, plays that weren’t above invoking the nasty anti-Semitism of the time, but that have miraculously lasted through the centuries to our present day. For readers wanting to imagine Shakespeare and the troubled, tumultuous times he lived in, Will in the World provides an awe-inspiring journey.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. Published by Vintage. ISBN: 9781847922960  RRP: $35

Also by Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve

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