Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World
Stephen Greenblatt is not stranger to the life and times of William Shakespeare. He has written many historical books about Shakespeare and is University Professor of Humanities at Harvard. His knowledge of Shakespeare comes across in a fluid and engaging style, open to all readers. His non-fiction book, Will in the World provides an insightful look into the life of the famous playwright with an astonishingly fresh perspective. With chapters as “The Dream of Restoration,” “Crossing the Bridge,” and “Speaking with the Dead,” Greenblatt explores Shakespeare’s life with attention to details that set his book apart from others. Greenblatt also provides insight to Shakespeare’s writing. The book offers insight into the historical and literary aspects of what have now known to become the greatest writer of all time. These aspects are balanced out quite well, for the book does not read like a historical book or bibliography at all. We are taken into the world of Shakespeare immediately and there is little room for boredom as Greenblatt successfully avoids the pitfalls of regurgitating history.
Will in the World grabs attention from the start with an intriguing jacket that invites curiosity about the “acutely sensitive and talented boy” we come to know as Shakespeare. Greenblatt writes that Shakespeare was a “master of double consciousness . . . recycled every word he ever encountered, every person he ever met, every experience he ever had” (Greenblatt 155). From this perception, we read about a playwright determined to use the gifts endowed unto him in the best way he saw fit. Greenblatt reveals a man living in a tumultuous time. From the earliest times in his life when he learned to cope with his father’s public fall to his achieving the popularity of the greatest playwright in Britain, Greenblatt offers us a man that we feel we know a little bit more after reading the book. Through the best and worst times, we see the man and perhaps one of the most painful aspects of the man’s life was the death of his son, Hamnet, after whom Greenblatt believes Shakespeare named the infamous Hamlet. The death of the father must have created a “spiritual crisis” (311) for Shakespeare, writes Greenblatt. Hamlet is a play about death, religion, and what lies in between, asserts Greenblatt, and the writing of it may have been the peace for which Shakespeare was looking.
Greenblatt also brings attention to the fact that as a playwright, Shakespeare was not rich by any means. After fame afforded Shakespeare a certain amount of status in the community, Greenblatt offers to us the story of how Shakespeare and his company cleverly took into their own hands a way to resolve their money problems. One a “snowy night of December 28, 1598, in a season cold enough to make the Thames freeze over” (291), Shakespeare and his men (along with a few paid thugs), proceeded to dismantle Burbage’s theater, carted the timber across town and in a matter of month, “fashioned a splendid new theater” (292). All of this dismantling was done by the light of lanterns. The finished playhouse was, in Greenblatt’s estimation, an “astonishing figure for a city London’s size” (292). Here we see the genius of a man and his friends working together to reach a solution to the nagging problem of paying rent for a playhouse. With a new playhouse and new terms, Shakespeare was part owner in the theater, setting himself up to profit in more than one way. He was a playwright, an actor, and part owner and he was still a frugal man, according to Greenblatt. He lived frugally, never living extravagantly. Instead, he chose to live among he fellow artisans in a low-rent area.
Greenblatt also provides us with some thought into what be hidden in Shakespeare’s strange epitaph. Perspective is also gleaned on many of Shakespeare’s works, including the Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear IV. He also goes into how Shakespeare only had one rival, Christopher Marlowe until 1957, when Ben Johnson emerged. The two men were similarly in age and envy. The two men “circled warily, watching with intense attention, imitating, and then attempting to surpass each other” (256). Here we see how healthy competition can spur talent. Additionally, Greenblatt delves into some of the mysterious aspects of Shakespeare’s life with a convincing perspective. His marriage to Anne Hathaway is viewed fairly. Shakespeare’s early marriage years and why he left for London are still elusive but Greenblatt attempts to ferret out some of the more popular theories regarding these issues. That Shakespeare did, for all intents and purposes, abandon his family is clear but why remains less so. Greenblatt realizes the negative attention that has been paid to this aspect of Shakespeare’s life but instead of attempting to unravel the mystery, he acknowledges that the event certainly did occur but moves on to Shakespeare’s life after Anne. He does his best to recount historical information in the chapter, “Wooing, Wedding, and Repenting.” Here he attempts to find answers from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, the Tempest, and even Hamlet to solve the mystery that surrounds Shakespeare’s ill-begotten marriage.
The final chapter in the book is tastefully written without being syrupy or critical of Shakespeare. We are afforded a look into the man’s life and perhaps a glimpse into his heart regarding personal issues that must have been difficult for him. Greenblatt weaves aspects of Shakespeare’s literature with these significant moments in his life. When it was discovered that Thomas Quiney, Shakespeare’s son-in-law had impregnated a woman other than his wife, Greenblatt pulls from the works of Shakespeare’s past including the Tempest and a Winter’s Tale, noting the Shakespeare was hardly a “rigid Victorian moralist” (385). In the end, Greenblatt notes, the “magician adjures his astonishing, visionary gift; retires to his provincial domain; and submits himself to the crushing, glacial weight of the everyday” (387). The man famous for conjuring up the most interesting characters in literature would “embrace ordinariness” (387). This is nothing for which he should be ashamed, writes Greenblatt. Within thse most exotic tales and around the most extravagant characters, Shakespeare “loved to revel the presence ordinariness in the midst of the extraordinary” (388). Greenblatt concludes the book with Shakespeare living an ordinarily content life with his daughter, Susanna and her family.
William Shakespeare is one of the most fascinating personalities in literature because his memory seems too large for us to fathom. We often see him in a superstar status, much the way superstars are seen today but it was much different world in Shakespeare’s Britain. Greenblatt’s rendering of Shakespeare allows us to see him as he evolved into the man that would soon have a reputation larger than life. The humble start of his life followed by an ill-formed marriage might have proven to be enough for any man but somehow Shakespeare’s talent emerged from these circumstances. There is mystery and some indication of a less than perfect man but Greenblatt does well to present the man as he likely was in his time, warts and all. Will in the World is a book to read by all interested in literature and Shakespeare. The writing style does not lend itself to intellectual types but rather the common man that Shakespeare himself would have written for in his time.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World. New York W.W. Norton and Company. 2004.
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