Call Me Will, Forsooth: The Bard as Ordinary Guy

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton, 430 pages, $26.95.

The records of Shakespeare’s life aren’t skimpy: There are deeds and court entries, real estate and town papers, his will, reports of performances of his plays, even an accepted example of his handwriting. From tributes in the original collection of his plays (the First Folio of 1623), assembled some seven years after his death, we know what his theatrical associates thought of him, and are certain of his contemporary celebrity. But there are no letters, no personal memories, no diary, no confessions or extended memoirs; nothing that explains the wonder of how this hick from a small town north of Oxford, without a university education, got to London to become the leading playwright of his day and managed to write the supreme masterpieces of English dramatic literature.

Then there are the soap-opera questions: Did he loathe his wife, Anne Hathaway? He spent most of their married life in London while she, back in Stratford, lived with his folks and raised the kids. In his will, he left her only the second-best bed; daughter Susanna got most everything else. Did he have more than a crush on the Earl of Southampton, who we presume is the young man his Sonnets are addressed to? And is this Dark Lady who came between them a poetic invention? Why did he retire? And did Gwyneth Paltrow really disguise herself as a boy to get the part of Juliet?

His early years—especially the mid-1580’s, with their paucity of records—have been the most worried over. Michael Wood’s recent book and television series, In Search of Shakespeare, found the bard-to-be skulking around the households of Stratford where stubborn Catholics (called “recusants,” and among them distant relatives of Shakespeare’s wife) secretly performed their rites. A recent and too-frequently embraced theory is that, before marriage, he went to the north of England as a tutor in a Catholic household—a dangerous place to be in Elizabeth’s virulently Protestant England. Closer to home, a Jesuit-designed declaration of faith was found, in the mid–18th century, stuffed above the rafters of the Stratford birthplace, signed by father John Shakespeare (the original has been lost). Stephen Greenblatt covers this period at length in his new book on Shakespeare’s life, Will in the World. (Is the title meant to recall Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea —the world as Will Shakespeare and Idea?)

Any Shakespeare biographer has to invent, suppose, imagine, adjust emphases, intuit, mulch the plays for hints of autobiography. The results depend not on what merely sounds sensible but on what helps us most in contending with the plays themselves. In this game, as Mr. Greenblatt confesses, “[t]here is no way of achieving any certainty,” and ingenuity does not usually triumph over common sense or likelihood. Nevertheless, Mr. Greenblatt gives his intention in the book’s subtitle: to tell us “How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.” How good are his guesses?

Mr. Greenblatt’s book has been excitedly anticipated because he’s among America’s most admired literary critics and educators, and his credentials include brilliant introductions to several of the plays in The Norton Shakespeare, of which he is the general editor. His eminence, though, comes from being a guiding light of the diverse school of literary criticism called “New Historicism,” an approach described as “a broad and vital reinterpretation of the nature of literary texts, a move away from formalism to a sense of literature as an aspect of social, economic, political, and cultural history.” One aim of New Historicism was to free Shakespeare from Bardolatry, the glorifying bloat of traditional worship, and to release him from the bondage of pinheaded literary scholarship into the world. Not least, it gave young academics a packed new galaxy of thesis material.

Though Shakespeare has indeed been resuscitated (thanks also to gender studies, reception theory, semiotics and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo), we still want to know why these plays don’t flame away like nitrate film, why they persist in devastating and invigorating us.

Mr. Greenblatt’s way is not to bushwhack through the years of Shakespeare’s life, from 1564 to 1616: We have facts, documents and debunked legends enough in Samuel Schoenbaum’s scrupulous and essential William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1974) and in a straightforward recent biography by Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life. The grand ambition of Will in the World is to bridge the life and the work: “Shakespeare’s actual world gets into his work, but most often in a distorted, inverted, disguised, or reimagined form. The point is not to strip away the reimaginings, as if the life sources were somehow more interesting than the metamorphoses, but rather to enhance a sense of the wonder of Shakespeare’s creation.” Since we can’t be certain about these “life sources,” the ground is shaky for admiring the metamorphoses. Our sense of wonder must be reserved for Mr. Greenblatt’s own enhancements, and not necessarily Shakespeare’s.

The book is made up of episodic riffs, letting stages of Shakespeare’s life (education, first years in London, marriage, last plays and retirement) be an opportunity to ramble over the period’s social, artistic, religious and political impingements on the man, and then ferret out how these sneak into the plays. For instance, as Mr. Greenblatt sees it, the genesis of the character of Falstaff begins with Shakespeare’s entry into London’s tavern world of fellow playwrights, where he may have discerned the dramatic possibilities in a malicious, dissolute and fat rival named Robert Greene. This conjecture allows for an account of the social marginality of London theater, bear-baiting, prostitution and how these all work themselves most conspicuously into both parts of Henry IV, Measure for Measure and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Mr. Greenblatt’s earlier, much better book, Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), explored the gap in the ritual mourning for the dead that was created by the expunging of the Catholic Purgatory by Protestant theology as a realm of the afterlife: In Elizabethan England, prayers for the deceased could no longer be directed there. In this book, Mr. Greenblatt proposes that, at the abbreviated funeral for Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, dead at the age of 11 in 1596, grandfather John, still attached to the old ways, asked his son William to have masses secretly recited. William refused, but Shakespeare’s unassuaged grief and the fear of his father’s imminent death (in 1601) became key ingredients in the making of the play Hamlet (c. 1600). With its logical skips, the theory hangs on John’s secret reverence for Catholic ritual and William’s sensitivity to ceremony.

This does, however, lead to a rare digression: an examination of a strictly technical playwriting matter, Shakespeare’s gradual discovery of the dramatic value of allowing an action to be based on an unexplained motivation (why does Hamlet pretend to be mad? What is Iago’s compulsive motivation?). Shakespeare learned to leave something crucial in the play unexplained. Mr. Greenblatt terms this “the principle of opacity” or “the radical excision of motive.” Another strictly literary digression examines Shakespeare’s skill in recording hesitations, secret intentions, ambivalences in dialogue, “the hidden processes of interiority.” Neither of these take him long to spell out, but they are not trivial, and the second might have something to do with what Harold Bloom has called Shakespeare’s invention of the human.

With these detours, he seems on the brink of relaxing into some account of artistic revolution, but they turn out to be dead ends. Mr. Greenblatt knows what’s absent here (absent because this book’s subject is Will in the world, not Will at his desk): how in these plays Shakespeare “fashioned an inner structure through the resonant echoing of key terms, the subtle development of images, the brilliant orchestration of scenes, the complex unfolding of ideas, the intertwining of parallel plots, the uncovering of psychological obsessions.” He offers, rather, the kind of hoary tale such as Shakespeare leaving Stratford after being arrested for poaching (ultimately disproved, following Mr. Schoenbaum’s trail), which spurs him to this (which Mr. Greenblatt hastens to say is “only a metaphor”): “Throughout Shakespeare’s career as a playwright he was a brilliant poacher—deftly entering into territory marked out by others, taking for himself what he wanted, and walking away with his prize under the keeper’s nose.”

With this sort of gassy guff, Mr. Greenblatt makes Shakespeare a kind of David Mamet tough guy with “a usurper’s knack for displaying as his own what he had plucked from others, an alarming ability to plunder, appropriate and absorb.” The point is clearly important to Mr. Greenblatt—it repeats a formula from Hamlet in Purgatory, where we learn of Shakespeare’s “potent blend of opportunism and imaginative generosity, appropriation and moral revulsion.”

Since the subject is always either conjectural or elusive (“his astonishing capacity to be everywhere and nowhere, to assume all positions and to slip free of all constraints”), the playwright remains out of focus, and—worse for a book on how he became what he came—indistinct, blended gradually with the background: “He had embraced ordinariness, or ordinariness embraced him.”

Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespeare, imaginatively alert to family ambitions and losses, religious and political undertones, veers toward the comfortably banal. (The last chapter is called “The Triumph of the Everyday.”) How else to characterize two more telling celebrations of “the ordinary” in the final pages? Mr. Greenblatt toasts the creator of Lear and Leontes, of Cressida and Juliet, with this: “He never showed signs of boredom at the small talk, trivial pursuits and foolish games of ordinary people.” He means the scene-changing blather of servants (as in Romeo and Juliet) and the dopey festival folk (as in The Winter’s Tale). And then, on retirement to the Stratford homestead: “What Shakespeare wanted was only what he could have in the most ordinary and natural way: the pleasure of living near his daughter and her husband and their child.” He alludes only briefly to the other, less sentimentally comforting legend—Shakespeare succumbing to a fatal illness after a drunken London binge with old cronies.

It all depends, I guess, on the Shakespeare we prefer to believe in.

Robert Cornfield’s book on Shakespeare’s plays will be published next year by Bloomsbury.

P ALIGN=”JUSTIFY”