On Stephen Greenblatt’s “Will in the World”

Stephen Greenblatt’s delightful ‘new historicist’ literary biography of William Shakespeare is an imaginative glimpse into the elusive life of the bard. Originally published in 2004, Will in the World is a comprehensive exploration into the mind of William Shakespeare from birth to death. Thanks to the diligent system of Tudor bureaucracy we know at least some minor details of his life, such as his real estate holdings, marriage, birth and death of his children, as well as reviews of his plays. Using quotations and imagery from Shakespeare’s plays and poems, Greenblatt re-imagines what Shakespeare might have experienced during his lifetime by filling in the vast gaps of his biography with possible experiences he might have had. It was certainly a tumultuous time in English history -it was the end of the Tudor regime with the decline of Elizabeth which was then overtaken over by the Stuart regime under James I. It was also a rocky era with plagues and ongoing violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics. Greenblatt’s book is a wonderful exploration into the possibilities of the historical imagination. Why did Shakespeare leave Stratford and head to London to write plays? How are we to understand his relationship with his wife and family? What, if any, were his religious inclinations?

Our contemporary prejudices tend to levy accusations against Shakespeare. Some tend to believe that a provincial simpleton without the benefits of a sophisticated Oxford or Cambridge education surely could not possibly have crafted such transformative literature and poetry. In our present-day, where great writers like Homer and Plato are often denied their seat at the table, poets like Shakespeare are thought to be an impossibility. In fact, a popular conspiracy theory exists today which suggests Francis Bacon was the true author of the Shakespearean corpus. Of course, this belief is relatively recent and was certainly not considered legitimate by any of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The fanaticism currently sweeping our culture also accuses Shakespeare of all manner of discriminatory beliefs (mostly coming from people who have read very little of Shakespeare). At any rate, Stephen Greenblatt avoids these pitfalls altogether in Will in the World.

Martin Droeshout was only fifteen when Shakespeare died but his sketch of Shakespeare for the First Folio was sufficient for the editors who knew Shakespeare well.

Writing a biography of Shakespeare is no doubt a challenging task. On top of the scant evidence from his life, Shakespeare was deliberately a master at disguising himself. His parents were likely covert Catholics but the Shakespeares displayed outward deference for Protestantism to avoid the punitive Protestant prejudices of the day, though Shakespeare’s later plays betray few, if any, religious devotion. Greenblatt interprets Shakespeare’s lack of religious inclination in his works due to a rejection of the traveling Christian allegory performances of his youth: “Here, and throughout his career, Shakespeare altogether scrapped the piety that marked the plays he saw in his youth” (35). In the 1580s, fresh off the heels of the English Reformation sparked by Henry VIII, it was a dangerous time to be Catholic in England and, in fact, many Catholics were publicly executed. Perhaps Shakespeare witnessed the martyrdom of Edmund Campion in 1581. At the time, England was also a remarkably censored society. All plays and public performances were reviewed by royal censors prior to approval for performance.

Shakespeare hailed from a small provincial town. His meteoric rise to stardom in the burgeoning London scene in the 1580s is extraordinary considering he was a man without independent wealth, powerful familial ties, or even a university education. A central theme in Greenblatt’s book is Shakespeare’s struggle to become a respected gentleman, including his decision to purchase a cheeky coat of arms in honor of his family name, despite his father’s fall from grace. John Shakespeare was a prominent rural landowner who also ran a ‘glover’ shop (a producer of fancy gloves where he traded in wool and leather). John Shakespeare also became a regional alderman (or magistrate) before his businesses turned sour which may have been the result of an economic downturn particularly for wool which led to declining demand for fancy gloves. He stopped attending church out of fear of his debt collectors (a grave omen at the time, as Tudor England tracked and regulated all citizens to be sure they attended Church). Despite being a closeted Catholic, he desecrated his local Church removing all Orthodox symbols as part of a Tudor crack-down on ‘Papists.’ However, the sudden decline of John Shakespeare’s income and growth of his debts likely due to a government crackdown illegal foreign wool trading. He turned to drinking and hiding out in his home, spending the last lingering money he had inherited from his wife Mary Arden’s family (whose family extended back to the time of William the Conqueror in the Domesday Book). Greenblatt explores what the decline of his family might have meant to young William Shakespeare in the culture of a class-obsessed England.

His early years are something of a mystery. Perhaps Shakespeare worked in his father’s declining glover shop or he became a country school teacher. Some have suggested he joined a traveling acting troupe. At any rate, around 1582 he returned to Stratford and wooed Anne Hathaway, an independent woman who was several his senior. When she became pregnant, eighteen year old William married his twenty-six year old bride (this was not necessarily an uncommon situation at the time). Shakespeare remained remarkably quiet about his marriage despite having written about love and courtship. Greenblatt portrays Shakespeare’s marriage as a failure. “As for the poet, if there is one thing that the sonnets, taken as biographical documents, strongly suggest, it is that he could not find what he craved, emotionally or sexually, within his marriage” (254). Shakespeare spent almost all of his time living apart from his wife and children, and upon his death Shakespeare left his wife nearly nothing but a ‘second best bed’ and some accompanying furniture (despite at the time, being a very rich land-owning man).

Likely at some point in the mid 1580s after the birth of a daughter and a set of twins (Hamnet and Judith -named after their neighbors), Shakespeare suddenly turned his back on his family and left for London. The reasons are unknown though Greenblatt offers a variety of speculations, not least of which includes the anti-Catholic mania that swept through the countryside at the time. “London was a city of newcomers, flooded every year with fresh arrivals from the country, mostly men and women in their late teens and early twenties, drawn by the promise of work, the spectacle of wealth and power, the dream of some extraordinary destiny” (163), however London was also dangerous, rat-infested, over-crowded, and prone to fires and diseases. “He had grown up in a world where the fields began just at the end of the street, or at most within a few minutes’ walk. Now all around him, extending for miles beyond London’s crumbling city walls, were tenements, warehouses, small vegetable gardens, workshops, gun foundries, brick kilns, and windmills…” (175). Yet London also contained the Renaissance rebirth of the classically proper ‘theatre’ -a move which was criticized by religious demagogues who warned of heathen incursions upon broader society. “The theatrical world Shakespeare found his way into was volatile, speculative, competitive, and precarious. The stage had vociferous enemies: the theatres, preachers and moralists charged, were temples to Venus and other devilish pagan deities; respected matrons who went innocently enough to watch the plays were quickly lured into lives of licentiousness; men were sexually aroused by seductive boy actors; the Word of God was mocked and piety held up to ridicule; grave authorities were brought into contempt; seditious ideas were planted in the minds of the multitude” (185-186). Shakespeare’s move to London was at a time when the English stage transformed from a traveling vagabond profession into a fixed practice centered in London.

Greenblatt touches on Shakespeare’s chief rivals and contemporaries, including Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. His great contemporary and predecessor, Christopher Marlowe, was a radical man whose life was filled with espionage and intrigue. Later, he was found stabbed through the eye at a bar. Marlowe was more of a risky man, while Shakespeare preferred to keep a low profile despite the growth of his popularity as an actor and playwright. Shakespeare’s first foray from acting to writing was in a series of plays intended to respond to Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (Henry VI parts I-III). Unlike Tamburlaine which is set in the far east, Shakespeare decided to focus on English history and Greenblatt interprets the Henry VI triad as a rejection of absolute rulership by showcasing the familiar years of the Wars of the Roses to Englishmen of the time. At the time, Marlowe was considered the height of Elizabethan drama and suddenly he was challenged by a relatively unknown playwright in Shakespeare.

Meanwhile back in Stratford, Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died at age eleven, another victim of the high infant mortality rates of the day (about one out of tree children died before the age of ten in England at the time). Greenblatt explores how the death of his only son likely affected Shakespeare who had more or less abandoned him from infancy. Death was ever-present among people of the time but Shakespeare felt something slipping away from him. Many of his siblings had also passed by this time, and his father was ailing back in Stratford. Following Hamnet’s untimely death Shakespeare produced a series of sunny comedies and by 1599 he had become a 10% partner in the Globe Theatre along with his fellow actors. The following year in 1600 Shakespeare completed his magnum opus Hamlet (Greenblatt offers nearly an entire chapter devoted to mining the depths of Hamlet). It represented a psychological shift in Shakespeare’s work that was likely influenced by the death of his son and ailing father. Greenblatt calls Hamlet “the deepest expression of his [Shakespeare’s] being” (321). It was a turn inward toward a more existential form of drama.

“The Chandos Portrait” is believed to be of Shakespeare. It was inherited in the 17th century by Sir William Davenant, a man who claimed to be the godson and also the illegitimate biological son of Shakespeare. It was eventually passed down to the Duke of Chandos.

Following Hamlet, Shakespeare produced a string of remarkable tragedies: Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. He also purchased vast lands back in Stratford while he began to contemplate retirement. His later plays reflect a wintering, more reflective tone: The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Shortly thereafter, Shakespeare retired in Stratford where he became one of the most prominent landowners, having become a wholly self-made man. His final days in Stratford were spent near his favorite daughter, Susanna, and her family. It is a mystery why so few writers at the time elected to comment on the life of the aging bard. Long after Shakespeare’s death, a rumor began to emerge about his death. Supposedly he went out drinking with fellow poets, including Ben Jonson, and caught an illness that killed him on April 23, 1616. Shortly before his death he haphazardly scrapped together a will, but his death mostly passed without mention. A few years later in 1623 some of his friends and fellow actors from his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) collected his plays in the ‘First Folio’ with an introductory poem by Ben Jonson: Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time.”

Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. W. W. Norton & Company. New York, 2004 (2016).

Stephen Greenblatt is a Harvard Professor of English Literature and the Renaissance. He has won a variety of honors including a Fulbright, Guggenheim, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer. His most celebrated book is perhaps The Swerve: How The World Became Modern (2011).

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