Will in the World

Will in the World

I’m currently reading, in fact am almost finished with, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt and enjoying it very much.

I don’t generally like reading biography and history; they are so often dry and meatless. (I recently abandoned Jane Austen, Her Life by Park Honan, though it is a subject I’m very interested in, because the style just didn’t grab me. I may go back later and attempt it again when I’m in a different mood.) But Greenblatt’s treatment is lively and entertaining. The book is a page-turner.

I can’t say much about the scholarly aspects, never having done much work on Shakespeare and not being currently engaged in any kind of research. I’m reading this book purely for entertainment and casual information, not scrutinizing the author’s scholarship. But I do like Greenblatt’s approach to his material. One thing I really appreciated about Greenblatt’s approach is his sensitivity to Shakespeare’s work and his consistent focus on Shakespeare as writer. His approach to biography is that of a critic, primarily concerned with the production of the artist’s literary opus and not the historian’s fascination with the minutiae of the historical milieu, which might be interesting but which I find impossible to actually read. I felt like all of the details and information he introduced led to a consideration of the text and were not thrown in because he found them fascinating for their own sake.

Any work on Shakespeare—for that matter any history or biography—necessarily contains much guesswork and speculation, and Greenblatt indulges in speculation more than many biographers. Greenblatt doesn’t just feed us facts about Shakespeare and his world. He spins a story in which we see how Shakespeare moved through that world and how that world moved through Shakespeare, forming his imagination and shaping his art. Yet, he is always careful to delineate how much of the story is fact and how much is fancy. It is clear when he is rehearsing known data and when he turns away from the facts to indulge in speculation and guesswork. And somehow he manages those transitions smoothly so that it is not a distraction when we move from one to the other. 

I didn’t always like where Greenblatt’s fancy led him. I often thought the facts added up more persuasively to a different tale. For example, I’m not persuaded that the evidence of the second-best bed necessarily leads to the presumed coldness between Shakespeare and his wife. And I didn’t especially enjoy some of the speculations on sexuality. But I enjoyed the ride for what it was.

Greenblatt does spend a chapter pondering the evidence supporting the theory that Shakespeare was a recusant Catholic.  I thought one of the most interesting moments in that chapter was his speculation about the possibility of a meeting between a young Shakespeare and Edmund Campion, the Jesuit martyr. It wasn’t a major thrust of the book; but it was interesting to revisit the subject from a different perspective than that of Clare Asquith’s book Shadowplay, which I reviewed here and which considers more the textual evidence for Shakespeare’s closet Catholicism than biographical.

All in all, I highly recommend Will in the World, especially to those looking for a beginner’s introduction to Shakespeare’s life and times, with the caveat that there is sexual material that might not be appropriate for younger readers.


With curiously apropos timing, Rich Leonardi of Ten Reasons blog links to a scholar who argues that Shakespeare didn’t just encounter Campion, but that he was Campion!

I’d like to add that I don’t buy it. The burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the “non-Stratfordians” to first provide a convincing argument for why we shouldn’t just stick with the simplest (and therefore most likely) explanation: that the man who history and tradition has consistently held wrote Shakespeare’s plays, William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon did indeed write the plays he’s said to have written. Before I’ll even give serious consideration to any of the silly arguments that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays, you have to get me over that enormous first step.

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