Thursday, 12 February 2015

Book Review - Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World : how Shakespeare became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004                      ISBN  0393050572

Who was William Shakespeare? That seemingly simple question has consumed a lot of ink over the centuries, and, it seems, continues to do so at if anything an increasing rate as the years go by. While many of these books are of dubious value, or are  even junk (vide Baconians and other fruitcakes), there have been quite a few books that allow us to view Shakespeare in a new light. Will in the World is one of them.

Stephen Greenblatt is at the forefront of current Shakespearean studies, and has used his considerable erudition in the area to produce a book that weaves what we know about Shakespeare’s life, material from his plays, and from the wider world he lived in, into an interesting and colourful book about the greatest playwright to have lived. It can be dangerous to read too much of a writer’s life into their works, as some have done referring to Shakespeare, but Greenblatt corroborates his readings by looking at wider influences on Shakespeare and England to reinforce his conclusions.

And what does he conclude about the man from Stratford? That he was a passionate, canny, quiet, hard-working man, who enjoyed making money and hated the idea of being cheated out of it. He was a man that listened, looked and read intently wherever he was, and who used every bit of material he had gathered in his work. While he knew how to keep his head above water and how to keep out of trouble, he liked to use his native wit to push the boundaries.

Greenblatt is deft in showing how Shakespeare responded to the times when writing his plays – whether it be bouncing off Marlowe (the Jew of Malta leading to the Merchant of Venice, Tamburlaine inspiring Henry VI), or responding to the ideas of King James (Macbeth). While Shakespeare used very little of his personal life in his plays, Greenblatt teases out some thoughts on Shakespeare’s marriage (not happy), his pride (he wanted to be successful), his religion (probably not too fussed).

Greenblatt’s suggests that during Shakespeare’s “lost years” he did in fact work for some Catholic families in the north of England, some members of whom lost their heads: which Greenblatt suggests led Shakespeare to be very careful about how much he wrote or spoke about certain matters. It seems relatively certain that at least some of his immediate family were Catholic, and in fact it could be that his father’s beliefs were part of the cause of his fall from grace; something that seems to have stayed with Shakespeare throughout his life. While he was careful not to reveal his thoughts in the plays, it’s clear that Shakespeare was very familiar with the old rites.

That was not the only thing Shakespeare was familiar with: he was well-versed on the legalities of loans and shares, the wool trade, leather work and glove making, among other trades. References to these are scattered through the plays, and in some way are the ‘smoking gun’ that proves he was indeed the author of the canon we know today. (Surely it’s much easier for someone like Shakespeare to gain a basic familiarity with court ritual than it would be for a Noble to learn the ins and outs of a trade or mercantile affairs.)

Greenblatt surmises that Shakespeare saw his work as just that – work. He seems to have spent his time writing, running the company, and ensuring that the money he made was well invested and looked after. It does seem that he had some affairs of the heart, which are revealed to some extent in his sonnets, but again it is hard to know for sure just how far these progressed.

Perhaps the greatest mystery in the book is Shakespeare’s retirement; why did he give it all away and go back to the country? Greenblatt struggles to provide a satisfactory reason, but, as a country boy who went to the big city and who is now back in the town I grew up in, it seems natural to me that Shakespeare just wanted to go home, and he had enough money to do so in style. By that stage his favourite daughter had married well and had children, so I think he just wanted to relax and see out his days in as carefree a manner as possible. Alas for him he died not long after.

Of course there is also the possibility that Shakespeare began to realise he was reaching the bottom of the well - from his early plays, which were drawn from clear sources and had more traditional structures, Shakespeare had changed the way theatre interacted with both audiences and actors, with concealed and unknowable forces propelling late characters such as Macbeth and Prospero. After expending so much effort to create his late masterpieces, perhaps Shakespeare felt he'd done what he could, and that to continue would not reveal anything more.

For anyone interested in Shakespeare and his times, this book is really a must-read. There is so much information in it that it rewards re-reading and going back to the plays to see how Greenblatt infuses new light into them. While not setting out to refute anyone else's "theories" about Shakespeare and the plays, this book is fairly conclusive in showing that William Shakespeare was the author of the canon as we know it, and some other works besides. Engaging and well-written, it is probably the go-to book for a life of Shakespeare in the early 21st century.

Highly Recommended

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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