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will in the world
6 december 2015
Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World is eleven years old now, and was old-fashioned when it appeared. Though based on current historical scholarship about Shakespeare's life and times, it embarks on the very early-20th-century-seeming project of connecting themes, characters, and ideas in Shakespeare's work with things that happened to him IRL. I remember people being either wary of Greenblatt's book or in love with it. There are good reasons to be either. He notes the affinities of the project to Shakespeare in Love, and in some ways Will in the World is the academic, unfunny version of that film farce.
At times when I was reading Will in the World, eleven years too late, I considered tossing it because it was either telling me things I knew, or spinning so far into speculation that it wasn't telling me anything useful. I had to remind myself that it would be the rare academic, even among Shakespeare scholars, who could learn nothing from this book, and just shut up and let it teach me things. Greenblatt is very good at teaching. I also remembered that I could skip or skim the questionable parts. Treated with something less than reverence, Will in the World is highly readable.
Though as I said, old-fashioned. Greenblatt can be impassioned and absolutist about the beauties of Shakespeare's language. This might embarrass staider, more skeptical or more ideological academics. But I welcome the passion of Greenblatt's approach: Shakespeare wrote "simply the most beautiful language" (49). Other academics would benefit from an infusion of that excitement. It really does not hurt to like the art you study, and believe there's aesthetic value in reading it – if not absolute and universal value, then at least value relative to artworks in the vicinity. And Shakespeare is pretty good for his vicinity.
So I can forgive Bardolatry. What bugs me once in a while about Will in the World (and I'm sure I'm not alone) is its tendency to spin a speculation off a speculation and then to speculate some more about how these speculative experiences must have informed Shakespeare's writing.
This was an artist who made use of virtually everything that came his way. He mined, with very few exceptions, the institutions and professions and personal relationships that touched his life. (126)So Greenblatt seems intent on running down every possible connection. Some are easy pickups and some are really reaches. It's plausible, for instance, that Macbeth had something to do with the fact that a Scottish king had just come to the English throne. And not just any Scottish king but one slightly uneasy about his own claim to that throne, and one fascinated by witchcraft. Greenblatt draws intriguing connections between Shakespeare's play and James VI/I's concerns.
Nor is it far-fetched to think that The Tempest is a play where the author contemplates his own retirement from the creation of "insubstantiall Pageants." But we get onto rocky ground when Greenblatt goes to elaborate lengths to posit playwright Robert Greene as the model for Falstaff. Any evidence is tenuous (as Greenblatt admits), and though Falstaff is clearly based on aspects of real people, greatly magnified, the bare idea that he must be based in part on somebody Shakespeare knew is kind of uninteresting.
But people can't help be fascinated by such identifications. I'm more interested in what Falstaff says about people, about our concepts of human nature and human capacity; but some people are just obsessed with saying X = Y, and Greenblatt plays to this audience. So we learn that Shylock may be based on an ethnic Jew named Ruy Lopez whom Queen Elizabeth had killed (not the chess-playing Ruy Lopez, another one).
We learn (128) that Shakespeare may have avoided depictions of happy marriages because he was unhappily married (though the inference is really the other way: we suppose he was unhappily married because he didn't write about happy couples). Here I'd ask what other playwrights were doing, but Greenblatt doesn't provide context. My memory of happy marriages in other Elizabethan and Jacobean plays turns up pretty much nothing. Old plays tend to be about getting the youngsters married or getting everybody killed. For that matter, you can think long till you come up with a Hollywood film about a happy marriage. The Thin Man, I suppose. This is a long way from Shakespeare.
The most egregious problem with this approach comes in assessing Shakespeare's relation to Catholicism. So little is known about Shakespeare's faith, and so little is known about some years in his youth, that it's tempting to think of the young Shakespeare moving covertly in Catholic circles and carrying away a strong impress of that proscribed faith. Greenblatt traces Catholic ideas through Hamlet and other plays – and with reason; the Ghost in Hamlet talks of Purgatory in a very Catholic way that can't be entirely explained by his being a pre-Reformation Dane.
Still, where are the other playwrights, and non-dramatic writers of the period, and what were they doing? Greenblatt writes as if Shakespeare were playing a uniquely dangerous game in flirting with crypto-Catholicism. But Ben Jonson, his friendly rival and nearest peer in the theatrical world, was openly a Catholic during this same period – not unproblematically, but not fatally either (Jonson would outlive Shakespeare by 20 years and write the most famous memorial poem to him). We hear nothing here about Jonson's well-documented Catholicism, and yet a great deal about a dubious and now-lost document that may have indicated that Shakespeare's father may have been a secret Catholic (and that thus the two men may have had some discussions about the faith when young Hamnet Shakespeare died, thus inspiring the treatment of the Ghost in Hamlet – and even if true, again, who cares).
Shakespeare was a wonderful writer, but to suggest as Greenblatt does that he was a unique writer is unhelpful. Greenblatt asserts that Shakespeare, in the middle of his career, "perfected the means to represent inwardness" (299), thus (by extension) creating modern literature, even modern psychology. I ask once more: "what were other writers doing?" Jonson and John Webster on the English stage, Cervantes in Spanish prose (and Thomas Shelton's translation), Montaigne in French prose, Francis Bacon, for crying out loud Shakespeare may have learned to represent inwardness with great skill and beauty, but he was hardly alone.
Still, along the way, Greenblatt provides a trove of examples from the plays and poems, displaying a network of sensitive reading that does justice to Shakespeare's complexity. As I say, I learned a lot from this book, whether it was review, or introduction to scholarship that had accumulated during decades of my inattention, or just from Greenblatt's skill as a close reader. Set your skepticism to stun, and Will in the World is worth the time and effort.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 2004. PR 2894 .G74