But Who Was Willy Shakes? – Will In the World by Stephen Greenblatt

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

Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a Shakespeare kick. Over the past year or so, I’ve grabbed just about a shelf full of his plays (generally the Oxford ones, although lately I’ve been grabbing Arden’s versions instead), literary criticism of his plays (Harold Bloom’s Invention of the Modern Mind stands out) and even a biography or two.

So when I grabbed a copy of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, I had an idea what to expect: a look at where he came from and of his time in the London theatre scene. Maybe something about his legacy, certainly something on how the First Folio was published. And almost surely a lot of supposition.

And while Greenblatt’s book is a little of all those, but it’s a lot more, too. Thing is, not all of it’s about the man himself.

There’s not a ton of details left unexplored for Shakespeare, which makes the few things we know well-covered. The will leaving the second-best bed to Anne, the story of why left Stratford-upon-Avon, a handful of portraits and first-hand accounts. Greenblatt’s book generally covers all the major events of Shakespeare’s life and takes a critical look at them, too. When he relates a story from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, he’s careful to note how inaccurate Aubrey’s book is.

Where it stands out best is when Greenblatt turns his critical eye to Shakespeare’s plays. The later chapters are mostly focused on specific plays, rather than a clear chronology of his life, and Greenblatt goes into the social and political contexts of each play, buttressing his conclusions with ample quoting from the plays themselves. For example, he draws a line between King James’ fear of witches and a small play written by Matthew Gwinn to the three witches’ in Macbeth and their role in guiding the action along.

It’s interesting stuff. Greenblatt breaks down why a character like Shylock resonates so specifically, while drawing connections between his character and then-contemporary London, putting the play not just in context but offering an interpretation on how it came together and what motivations Shakespeare may have had.

But read that last sentence again: may have had. For every opinion offered in this book, Greenblatt is careful to point out it’s speculative. Phrases like “…It is difficult to attribute anything in Hamlet specifically to these events…” (pg 310) come up again and again. Another example, this time in a section about how Shakespeare parodyed his contemporary playwrights: “if all the plays had survived, scholars would no doubt have identified other instances.” Possibly, but that’s more supposition.

In a preface, Greenblatt admits the trail is long on items but short on details. “To understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into art, it is important to use our own imagination,” he writes (pg 14). All the guesswork isn’t a fatal flaw here, but it keeps a nagging doubt in the back of my mind: how much of this book is Greenblatt’s interpretation? Does it extend further than an analysis of the poems and plays? Does he project on to the facts, like with Shakespeare’s marriage?

In a chapter focusing on that marriage, Greenblatt looks thoroughly through the plays to find evidence that William and Anne’s marriage was an unhappy one. He quotes from All’s Well That Ends Well, Macbeth, Hamlet and elsewhere, each time striking at his idea that the marriage was unhappy and distant. While he eventually concludes Shakespeare may have written a single sonnet to his wife, he also writes it off as almost unworthy of mention: “such an origin may explain its anomalous meter… and it’s ineptitude,” he writes. (pg 143). Nowhere does he mention what role (if any) she played in getting his plays published and barely touches on her life in Stratford must’ve been like. One of the other Shakespeare books I’ve been reading takes a different angle; look for review of Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife sometime soon.

Still, even if this is a highly individualist take on the plays, it’s one I’m glad to have read. While I’m sometimes a little skeptical of his conclusions, I’m not going to argue with the breadth of research and knowledge that went into this. It’s obvious that he knows the plays inside and out, but more interestingly, has done volumes of research. His notes in the back aren’t overly specific – he rather mentions what he’s referring to than pointing to each reference specifically – but suggest a whole other shelf full of secondary material: biographies, histories, essays and collections of documents.

Where I found this biography a little lacking was in a clear narrative. Perhaps it’s because of a general lack of resources, but Greenblatt moves around a lot. He’s unable to give much information on the final years of Shakespeare, dryly noting that nobody bothered recording when or how he died. Likewise, his ideas on Shakespeare’s marriage, relationship towards his children and connection to fellow actors and playwrights all seem like guesswork. Educated, yes, but still an opinion.

Rating: 7/10. If I had to summarize this book in a word, I’d use opinion. Greenblatt’s an opinionated guy and one who knows quite a lot about Shakespeare and the world he lived in. But there’s not a lot to be certain about; it’s impossible to write something as through, detailed and insightful as Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce about someone who we generally know so little about. I enjoyed it, but I also enjoying comparing it’s conclusions to other people’s, too.


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