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

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Any book worth reading about Shakespeare will necessarily include a certain amount of fabrication, we know that little about the man. That's one of the reasons people love both reading and writing about him; there are so many holes in his biography that it's relatively simple for the Sweet Swan of Avon to become all things to all men. That said, I don't know that I've ever read a non-fiction book with quite so much pure speculation as Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. This finalist for the 2004 National Book Award is redeemed, however, though the author's awareness of his own flight of fancy.

That Stephen Greenblatt has the authority to write a 390-page book about Shakespeare is not an issue. One of our time's leading scholars, he's spent his career studying Shakespeare and the Renaissance. He's been a Fulbright and Guggenheim fellow, written a shelf full of books (many of them about Shakespeare), and edited the Norton anthologies of both English Literature and Shakespeare. Shoot, the man even pioneered a style of criticism called New Historicism, which argues that works of art are inexorably bound up with their cultural and historical context. While the book at hand is certainly built upon this scholarly foundation, what makes it most readable is Greenblatt's cognizance of the role played by imagination.

In the closure of his introduction, the author makes a vital statement: "And to understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into his art, it is important to use our own imagination." This is essentially an elegantly worded get out of jail free card, and one other Shakespearean biographers would do well to emulate. There is so little known about Shakespeare's life that an author must be creative, convincing and selective in constructing the life of this subject. Will left us no letters or journals, and so all we have to work with are a few legal documents, his poems and plays. Greenblatt is not breaking new ground by using these scant materials as a springboard for constructing the Bard's life, but by acknowledging that he must be imaginative in this endeavor, he politely excuses himself from strict adherence to historical fact.

The author uses this self-granted creative license to engage in speculation which is far deeper and, at times, more outrageous than I've ever read. Take, for example, the discussion of Shakespeare's influence on Christopher Marlowe, and vice versa, in chapter 9. Early on, Greenblatt says "Marlow would not have made the mistake of underestimating Shakespeare….Shakespeare, for his part, was in no danger of underestimating Marlowe. Marlowe was the only one of the university wits whose talent Shakespeare might have seriously envied, whose aesthetic judgment he might have feared, whose admiration he might have earnestly wanted to win, and whose achievements he certainly attempted to equal and outdo." This is assumption of the highest order. In this and other statements, Greenblatt has crawled into Shakespeare's brain and come out with something resonating with the tone of truth, but it is simply not so. There is no way to know what Shakespeare thought of Marlowe. Shakespeare might have hated the guy, they may have been best friends, or it could have been nothing more than a vague professional awareness. We simply have no way of knowing things like this, but Greenblatt would time and again make statements of this extravagant sort. At first I was surprised, maybe even a little outraged, until I figured out just what the author was trying to accomplish.

As is customary, the book contains a great deal of textual analysis of Shakespeare's writing as a means to arrive at certain biographical conclusions, but there's more to it than that. After finishing, it occurred to me that perhaps Greenblatt never intended for this to be a biography at all. Instead, it reads more like a lusciously detailed character sketch. At the end, the reader feels something of a connection to Shakespeare, a more intimate understanding of his life than has been fostered in other such volumes. While most of what creates that affinity is pure, albeit well-reasoned, conjecture, Greenblatt is a writer of sufficient enough quality to make that a minor concern. He has taken the tremendous voids in Will's life and embraced them, going one step beyond simply acknowledging or, worse, ignoring them. He has done what no other scholar has dared to do and the result is largely successful. The reader is able to come away from the book with a sense of really knowing the greatest English writer ever, while also understanding that the created figure of Shakespeare is largely ephemeral, as it must always be. In a sense, Greenblatt has done what Jimi Hendrix did with feedback: taking the unwanted, the frightening, and transforming it into art.

Surprisingly, however, Greenblatt has little to say throughout the work about Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway. She is certainly a popular and intriguing topic, as well as being one which can be best tracked through the historical record. From a curious misspelling of names in the parish marriage register, to Will's departure for London, to the now famous second-best bed, there is plenty to cover, and yet Greenblatt seems oddly hesitant to do so. Most of the discussion of Anne comes in a broader family context, part of the life Shakespeare left behind in Stratford. There is very little about her personally, and given the prodigious intellectual leaps he makes elsewhere, I refuse to believe the author had any sort of qualm over including her for lack of information. Instead there seems to be a certain terseness in his writing about Anne, as though he either felt the topic overplayed or simply disliked the woman (the latter was my totally unfounded, initial impression). The matter of the second-best bed gets only a passing reference, when I had hoped to hear an interesting speculation on just what Shakespeare meant in that part of his will. After all, if Greenblatt has the wherewithal to tell me what the Bard thought of Christopher Marlowe, surely he could have done the same thing with Anne. It was the one place I felt truly disappointed as a reader, and it was made worse because it came so close to the end.

This is a sophisticated look at one of the language's great writers and seems intended for an audience already familiar with the much of the story. I wouldn't recommend this to a Shakespearean neophyte (Bill Bryson's book, however, is an excellent introduction). For a reader searching for more than simple biography, however, this book raises fascinating questions about the both the playwright and one of his most learned followers.

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