Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is a whirlwind tour through the life and times of the scribbler from Stratford. It provides biographical details, historical context and a lot of educated guessing to create a character sketch of the man who has become the emblem of what it is to be a great writer in the English language. Physicists get Einstein. Musicians get Mozart or Beethoven. Artists get Picasso. And writers, they are supposed to be striving to match the good ol' Bill S.
Greenblatt is very interested in what inspired Shakespeare. How did his marriage, his parents, his children, color his plays? Unfortunately, because of the scarcity of surviving biographical information, there's a lot of back and forth in which the sonnets and plays are essentially used to support rumors about Shakespeare's personal life. This is unfortunate not because the conclusions are implausible, but because everything is speculative. Greenblatt's conclusions make sense, but as a reader, I need to remind myself that many of them are supposition, not fact. What we know about Shakespeare is likely to always be fairly limited.
With so little surviving information about William Shakespeare, the man with a family in Stratford and a life in London, Greenblatt takes what evidence we do have and holds it against the poems and the plays, to see if one will unlock the other. For example, Greenblatt surmises a love affair between Anne Hathaway and young William based on the timelines of his travels, their wedding and her pregnancy, along with "the centrality of wooing in Shakespeare's whole body of work." But he also adds the caveat: "That understanding may not have had anything to do with the woman that he married, of course, and, theoretically at least, it need not have anything to do with his lived experience at all."
This is the catch with what is a fascinating book: how reliably can we postulate on the man's life using his art as one of the pieces of evidence?
Greenblatt is very interested in Shakespeare's romantic relationships. This is no surprise; the man wrote the world's most romantic sonnets and the official play of doomed romance. Greenblatt comes back to the relationship between Anne and Will again and again. He notes the absence of spouses from Shakespeare's plays, the lack of convincing spousal relationships. He also notes that if there were love letters from London to his left-behind bride, none survived. Greenblatt makes a convincing case that this may not have been a warm and loving and passionate marriage. When he dies, Shakespeare, a master of romantic symbols in his professional life, leaves her his "second-best bed."