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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became…

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004)

by Stephen Greenblatt

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On June 29, 1613, the King’s Players put on Henry VIII at the Globe Theater in Southwark. Miniature cannons were fired during a scene representing Henry VIII attending a masque at Cardinal Wolsey’s house; some bits of wadding lodged in the thatched roof of the theater and set it on fire. Fortunately, the fire was slow, and there was plenty of time to rescue costumes, props, and manuscripts before the Globe burned to the ground. The rescued manuscripts included the only copies of Henry VI, Part 1; Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. That’s how close we came.

Will in the World is an uneven but ultimately worthwhile biography of Shakespeare. The problem all Shakespeare biographers have – and what provides fuel for centuries of “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” theorists – is that other than the plays, poems and sonnets there is precious little documentation on the man. We know that he was baptized in Stratford on April 26, 1564 and that he was married, still in Stratford, sometime in late November or early December 1582. He had children in 1583 (daughter) and 1585 (son and daughter twins). Sometime soon after the birth of his twins he left Stratford and went to London, where there are sparse records of him; some business transactions, minor lawsuits, property tax receipts. He did well at his trade, amassing enough money to buy substantial properties in Stratford and a building in London. He retired to a comfortable manor in Stratford sometime between 1611 and 1616; he was buried in Stratford on April 25, 1616.

This is all author Stephen Greenblatt has to work with; he has to fill it in with assumptions, hearsay from contemporaries and near-contemporaries, and, of course, inferences from the writings. Some of the assumptions, hearsay, and inference is reasonable; some is more speculative. Greenblatt goes furthest out on a limb trying to figure out what Shakespeare was doing as a child and young adult. There was a school in Stratford, and it’s reasonable Shakespeare attended it; he had to learn his small Latin and less Greek somewhere. He may have had some sort of run-in with a noble neighbor over poaching. His family fortunes seem to have declined; his father John, a glover, worked up gradually through public positions (one of his jobs was official ale taster) until he was bailiff (essentially mayor) of Stratford and then gradually loses prominence until he’s no longer mentioned in public records. Shakespeare’s marriage has provided a lot of material for speculation; he put up a £40 bond to avoid having the banns read and seems to have had marriage licenses for two different women (the question is if the William Shagspere licensed to marry Anne Hathwey on November 28 1582 is the same as the William Shaxpere licensed to marry Anne Whatley on November 27 1582, and if Anne Hathwey is the same as Anne Whatley; i.e., are there two, three, or four different people involved). The marriage question is one of the places I’d like to see some numbers; Greenblatt notes that the £40 bond represented a huge sum of money; two year’s salary for the Stratford schoolmaster. However, although he explains why the bond was necessary (you were supposed to read the banns on three successive Sundays to see if anyone objected, and Anne Hathaway was already three months pregnant) he doesn’t say how common this was; were such bonds routine or rare?. Similarly he proposes that the name “Shakespeare” in its numerous orthographic variants was common for the place and time, to provide a possible explanation for the multiple marriage licenses, he doesn’t say how common; are there a couple of other Shakespeares, or a dozen, or tens, or hundreds? Given the scanty evidence, Greenblatt accepts the relatively common position that Shakespeare and his wife didn’t really get along. The general idea is that her pregnancy made it a fowling-piece marriage; her family was relatively well-to-do and would have pressured the Shakespeares to do the right thing. They did have children, of course; however after the twins were born in 1585 there aren’t any more, even after Shakespeare’s only son died in 1596. There’s no evidence that Shakespeare even visited Stratford between 1586 and his retirement to there in 1611 or after. A lot is made of the fact that all he left to Anne was his “second best bed”; in fact Greenblatt notes that nothing was left to her in the original will at all; the bed bequest was added in a later codicil, as if Shakespeare had to be nudged to remember her with something.

Greenblatt doesn’t know quite what to do with Shakespeare in between his wedding and his arrival in London (or even exactly when that arrival was). Was he working as a glover, working as a tutor in some noble household, wandering around the country, or what? There’s a whole chapter, based on sparse to nonexistent evidence, suggesting that Shakespeare was up in the north of England working in some capacity (presumably tutor) for a cryptoCatholic family. Not impossible but not well supported either.

Once Shakespeare’s in London, Greenblatt can start using his writings as evidence for various hypotheses. The catch, of course, is Shakespeare’s writings are like the Bible; if you are sufficiently determined and willing to disregard context you can find support for just about anything you want. Thus the questions Catholic/Protestant, misogynist/philogynist, straight/gay/bi are all discussed with support for one position or another drawn from the plays/poems/sonnets but there’s no real conclusion.

Still, there’s a lot of good stuff here – background on the religious controversy in England; James I’s fear of witchcraft, and the role of actors in contemporary life (I learned that “role” is derived from “roll”; because play manuscripts were bulky and scarce, actors were given a roll of paper with only their lines and entry cues rather than the whole play). I also discovered there are several “unknown” Shakespeare plays floating around; Sir Thomas More, which exists in a single manuscript copy penned in multiple hands (Hand “D” is supposed to be Shakespeare); The Tragedy of Gowrie, banned after two performances and with no extant copies; The Two Noble Kinsmen, a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher; and the lost (maybe; might be a play renamed as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy) History of Cardenio, another Fletcher/Shakespeare collaboration.

Worth it, then, just to see the range of speculation available for the Bard of Avon. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Jan 1, 2018 |
I am no Shakespeare scholar, not by any stretch, so my response is that of a novice. I have read books about the general period though, e.g. about Giordano Bruno. So I have some prior vague ideas about the context.

This was a bit of a frustrating book... not the author's fault of course. We just don't have that much direct evidence about Shakespeare's life. Mostly everything is could have, might have, etc. But Greenblatt corrals a wonderful collection of tales from the whole length of Shakespeare's life. The book is mostly a chest of gems, bits of English history that line up with bits of Shakespeare's writing. We don't get a fabric - Greenblatt doesn't really follow paths beyond the Shakespeare link. Where were Ben Jonson's plays performed? We only hear about such matters if Shakespeare is acting in one.

It's a very nice chest of gems. For me probably the best aspect was how they reflect on Shakespeare's writing. I am certainly inspired to go read more of Shakespeare with this new source of illumination in mind! Curiously, this book doesn't really inspire me to go read more about e.g. the succession from Elizabeth to James. Yet I know that is a fascinating bit of history. That's just more evidence of the narrow focus of Greenblatt's book. It's a reasonable choice for an author. But that's the choice he made here. ( )
1 vote kukulaj | Dec 3, 2017 |
It's an odd one; I can't say I entirely enjoyed this work, but the last chapter in particular raises enough questions that I wish the rest of the book had focused on that instead. ( )
  Dez.dono | Aug 8, 2017 |
William Shakespeare, widely considered the greatest writer in the English language, lived from 1564 to 1616. This book, by the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and editor of the The Norton Shakespeare (2015) is a book about what life was like in the time and place in which Shakespeare lived and worked. Some of it also speculates about what Shakespeare himself thought and felt, mostly based on common themes in his plays, sonnets, and narrative poems, since there is not much documentation on Shakepeare’s actual life.

Occasionally I thought Greenblatt’s speculation went a bit too far, especially about Shakespeare’s childhood. But still, it showed what a childhood in that period may have been like, even if it did, or did not, necessarily apply to Shakespeare. And I greatly enjoyed learning about the history of that era in Elizabethan England. Greenblatt highlighted the religious wars of the time, the fears over the sometimes harsh laws, the ever-present threat of recurring bouts of Bubonic plague, and the variety of entertainments available to the populace for escapism.

I have seen two main criticisms of the book. One is that, of course, much of the content about Shakespeare’s life is conjecture. But the author clearly identifies it as such, and adduces much evidence for why it could have, or might have, been true. In any event, all the historical information about the period is well documented, and is very interesting.

The second is that the author seems to fall into the “apologist” camp for “The Merchant of Venice,” focusing on Shakespeare’s addition of humanizing aspects to Shylock, the reviled Jewish merchant. While it is certainly true that Shylock is perhaps (incredibly enough) the most humane portrayal of a Jew from that time period (c.f. Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”), there is in fact a good reason why “The Merchant of Venice” was a favorite in the early Nazi era between 1933 and 1939, during which time it was produced about 50 times. In any event, Greenblatt’s analysis is thought-provoking, and also teaches us about the sensational (at the time) case of the suspected treason, trial, and execution of Queen Elizabeth’s physician, Rodrigo Lopez, who may have been an inspiration for Shylock.

I listened to this engaging book on audio, and I think that medium added immeasurably to my enjoyment. To demonstrate the points he makes, the author quotes at length from many passages in the plays and sonnets. Here is where an audio version shines, especially with this narrator, Peter Jay Fernandez, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor. Not only does he read the passages beautifully, but through his intonation, provides meaning often missed just be reading the text. (In addition, the author adds explanations for the context and meaning of Shakespeare’s words that greatly add to the reader’s (or listener’s) understanding and enjoyment.)

If you love Shakespeare, you will love the book, and if you aren’t as familiar with Shakespeare, you may become a new fan. ( )
1 vote nbmars | Feb 6, 2017 |
Really interesting and fun. In describing events, conflicts, and culture in Shakespeare's world, Greenblatt freely admits at many points that he is speculating when he makes connections between events which may have occurred in Shakespeare's life or may otherwise have made an impression on him, and aspects of his work as a poet and a playwright. Even when the connections seemed particularly tenuous (such as whether Shakespeare worked briefly as a tutor in a wealthy Catholic household), the history was interesting to me, and even without a direct connection, I suppose someone as alive to his times as Shakespeare was would probably have been affected to some extent by what was “in the air.” The only chapter when Greenblatt's “supposings” seemed to get out of hand was the one on the sonnets. I found his arguments here inconsistent and unconvincing – he admits, for example, that Shakespeare's intentions regarding the order and relations between the sonnets cannot be known, not to mention the extent, if any, to which they were “personal” rather than imaginative (and commercial) art, and then he goes on to build an elaborate story based on his preferred interpretation. Still, he more than makes up for this in the chapters where he treats Elizabethan antisemitism and witchcraft, both of which were particularly well done and will add to my enjoyment next time I read “The Merchant of Venice” and “Macbeth.” Definitely worth a look for those who enjoy Shakespeare! ( )
1 vote meandmybooks | Jan 16, 2017 |
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A young man from a small provincial town--a man without independent wealth, without powerful family connections, and without a university education--moves to London in the late 1580s and, in a remarkably short time, becomes the greatest playwright not of his age alone but of all time.
A pack of paper that, neatly folded and cut, yielded about 50 small sheets, would have cost at least fourpence, or the equivalent of eight pints of ale, more than a pound of raisins, a pound of mutton and a pound of beef, two dozen eggs or two loaves of bread.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 039332737X, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:08 -0400)

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"Apaga la tele, enciende la imaginacin. Estudios recientes han revelado que los nis y las nias de nuestra sociedad pasan ms de tres horas diarias frente al televisor. Los pedagogos advierten que este hbito favorece la obesidad, los problemas de visin y la pasividad en los ms pequeos. Qu podemos hacer?" Las propuestas de este libro proporcionan a los nios alternativas a la televisin o a la videoconsola. Estas iniciativas didticas nos permiten disfrutar de buenos ratos al lado de nuestros hijos, e incluso darles los intrumentos para que se diviertan solos mientras aprenden"--Contraportada.… (more)

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393050572, 039332737X

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